First Published September 2019
“MUSIC IS STILL AN ART FORM”
If you’re looking for someone to enjoy a great chat with, then Celtic Tenor MATTHEW GILSENAN is definitely a man worth seeking out. I had that pleasure recently when I sat down with the Meath man to talk all things music and more. While I may have been exceptionally lucky in that regard, the good news is that all of you can also enjoy the absolute glory of Matthew‘s voice on October 6th in Tullamore.
Matthew, with fellow Celtic Tenors James Nelson and Daryl Simpson, bring their world-famous sound to the Tullamore Court Hotel for an evening of what is sure to be the most magical entertainment.
Matthew comes from a very musical family, so today, to begin Part 2 of our chat, I began by asking him how important that fact was, not just in igniting his passion for music, but also for developing it. Matthew began his own classical training when he was just ten…
“Yeah, I was extremely young, I was in national school, so I might have even been seven. That’s when I was kind of collared by my national school teacher. At that time, though, we didn’t really have a musical family, in that no-one really played a musical instrument or anything like that. My dad just sang, and my mum just sang. But particularly my dad. And we knew all these songs like, Just A Song At Twilight, all these songs that dad would be singing in the digger while he’s feeding the cattle or something [laughs]. That, coupled, I think, with the fact that they saw I had an interest in music. They encouraged me to try piano, but I didn’t like that, so I tried accordion, but I didn’t like that either. So I ended up just doing pure singing, and I did like that! My younger sister, Deirdre, she kind of followed me, she goes by the name Deirdre Shannon. She sang with Michael Flately with Lord of The Dance, she was the solo singer for a good number of years. And then she sang with The Celtic Women for about three years as well. She’s an extremely lovely singer and very good at what she does. But she’s having a baby break now, having babies! [laughs].“
Celestine, Matthew‘s wife, is also the group’s manager. Many of the best artist/manager relationships are very, very close, as much friendships as business relationships. Some people think that there has to be a very defined line between artist on the one side, and manager on the other, but I don’t believe it has to be that way as a rule. So I can see how a dual wife/manager role might work, as it obviously does in this case. I asked Matthew how it developed…
“Well, necessity is the mother of invention! [laughs]. We started off with a promoter becoming our manager, and maybe it wasn’t his natural calling. Pat Egan, from Dublin, wonderful, wonderful gentleman. He managed Mary Coughlan for a while, managed Jimmy MacCarthy for a while. And when we started off, he managed us. He probably would say it himself, that maybe he wasn’t the most natural manager. He knows the industry inside-out, I defy anyone to know the industry as well as Pat does. We got a great grounding in the music industry and realised it is called the music business for a reason. But you can’t get lost in the business side if it, it is still an art form. There’s this fine line that you’re continually dancing around. All of the wonderful connections Pat made for us were fantastic, too. What it did, was open our eyes to what a real manager is. We parted ways just because it wasn’t the right match in the end. Unless you’re American, it’s hard to manage America properly. So we went from Pat to an American based manager, who was Loudon Wainwright’s manager actually, Tim Burnett. He managed us for a little while, and introduced us to the wider circle of America, and that broke America for us. That in turn led to Canada. So we kind of had a fairly good base, if you like, with which to work. And the bottom line with having a manager is you have to pay a manager! When you’re not an enormous act, but you’re big enough, it’s hard to afford all of these things. So unless your manager is bringing amazing things to you, you might be better off at looking at how you can manage yourself. So it wasn’t all about the money, in fact, it was nearly not about the money at all. It was just about the level of imagination for ourselves. So the big thing that a manager needs to bring is imagination and drive. And Celestine has that in buckets! She and I kind of manage things a little bit, but Celestine makes everything happen.”
Matthew referred to the States during his previous answer, and Celestine once remarked how she tells people that he basically lives on a bus when he’s in the States. And Matthew himself has admitted that it’s not easy to adjust to being home off touring, either. It can take a week or so to feel back to normal. Now most showbiz careers seem like they’re all glamour on the outside, but yet, there’s all those other sides to it that most people probably never realise, like…how much time you spend on buses! Are there any other parts of Matthew‘s career that he thinks it might surprise people to know about?
“Everything that you mentioned is really true. And another thing is that when you go on tour, you get fat! [laughs]. You get unhealthy. It started with me about fifteen years ago, and it was actually around the time when the Celtic Tiger got executed! [laughs]. It was when stress, like, ‘How are we gonna make this work…?’, when we were managing the project at that point, stress was a huge thing. But also, the lack of a healthy lifestyle. My doctor said, ‘I need you to do something for your stress and for your health, and I recommend running.’ So I started running. And now, whenever I go anywhere, let’s say if I get an eight o’ clock flight to Minneapolis, like we’re doing next week, well when I land I’ll do a 3K run or a 5K run. It helps you acclimatise to the area. It’s almost like part of my warm-up routine now, it’s so important. I need to get out and have a run, keep the body fit. Particularly in America, it’s hard to eat healthily. The glories of the burger and the fries, they’re delicious! But then you come home and your cholesterol is through the roof!”
Would Matthew go for his run around the actual area he’s in, or just find a gym?
“Oh definitely out and about. Although I have had some bad experiences where bits that stick out a bit more than others get absolutely frozen! [laughs]. You have to be a bit careful if it’s minus-twenty, but it doesn’t seem like minus-twenty. And you think ah sure that’s grand, it’s a lovely, grand day, snowy but it’s lovely! [laughs]. You can end up in real trouble! If it’s any way clement at all, I will definitely run out and about. And I used to always run with headphones, but I don’t run with them anymore. I just go for the sights and sounds, ya know. If there’s a forest or a park that’s all the better. Sometimes it’s in a gym and that’s fine too, but it’s more the little bit of nature that I like if I can find it.”
What else is coming up…
“We have a lot happening outside of Ireland, but we have a brand new album called An Irish Songbook that’s out now, we released it at the beginning of this year. And that’s something that we’re very excited about. For the first time in many years we’ve done an album that we possibly should have recorded at the beginning of our career, but thirteen albums later, we have a totally Irish album! Dick Farrelly from Kells wrote ‘The Isle of Inisfree’, which was a big hit for Bing Crosby, these kind of songs. What else have we got on that album? We have ‘The Parting Glass’, we have ‘Carrickfergus’…”
Given our discussion on choosing songs for albums earlier on in our chat, I wondered if this was an easy album to pick for?
“Do you know what? In the end it was extremely easy, because it was the most obvious songs that we should have done at the very beginning. The most difficult albums to pick for are the ones where you’re trying to do something that might be a little bit outside of your comfort zone. But that’s been very interesting too. We have an album called Timeless which we made a few years back, not too long ago, and Charles Fisher, who is the producer of Secret Garden, he came over to Ireland and he stayed in Kells where we recorded it. You know ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’? He was instrumental in actually making that song actually happen, and that whole album. He also worked with Air Supply, on songs like ‘All Out Of Love’, he worked with Olivia Newton John, Midnight Oil, INXS, he had a very broad canvas of things that he worked on in the past. For him to work with us was brilliant, but it brought huge challenges in terms of what are we going to record with him? So we ended up recording more Bob Dylan, and John Denver, Elvis… THAT was a tricky one to pick for! [laughs]. Martina McBride, the American country singer, we did her ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’. When you hear her sing it, it’s lovely and you think it’s meant for her. But when you hear men do it, it’s just as powerful. And we all love our daughters, and the daughters love their daddies! The next album that’s kind of on the cards – but it will be a while yet – is true opera. We haven’t done that yet.”